February 18, 2017


Kilt for Hire : a review of The Tartan Turban: In Search of Alexander Gardner By John Keay (BIJAN OMRANI, Literary Review)

He travelled at first disguised as an Arab, passing between caravans and bands of freebooters. On one occasion he was captured and nearly sold into slavery, though his wanderings near Merv, which he glosses over in his accounts, are likely themselves to have been slave-raiding expeditions, then endemic around northeast Persia. He learned how to kill on the road when it was a necessity. Yet he could also use his considerable charm and astuteness to preserve himself. On being arrested by the Khivan authorities, who suspected him of being a Russian spy, he won over the khan by revealing his American identity, assuring them he was no threat to Khiva's independence.

Around 1823, he reached Afghanistan. The country was then a patchwork of dominions ruled over by warring interrelated families. His charm won him employment under Habib-ulla Khan, a nephew of Dost Mohamed, the ruler of Kabul who was later deposed by the British in the First Afghan War. Habib-ulla himself had been ousted by Dost Mohamed from the Kabul throne, and he was now waging a guerrilla war against his uncle from a stronghold north of Kabul. Gardner was put in charge of 180 cavalry and ordered to plunder the caravans intended for the capital. Before long, he captured a convoy carrying one of Dost Mohamed's wives and other female members of the royal household. One of them was given to Gardner as a reward and bore him a son.

Gardner's domestic bliss was shattered a couple of years later when Dost Mohamed's soldiers raided his compound and murdered his young Afghan family. Gardner fled, passing through the Pamirs, Xinjiang and Kashmir. He was the first European to visit Kafiristan in eastern Afghanistan, the remote region of the Hindu Kush where the native peoples clung to ancient animist beliefs, still untouched by Muslim proselytisation. Eventually he found service with Ranjit Singh as an artillery officer. However, his remit ended up being wider than gunnery. The Sikh Empire collapsed into vicious internecine conflict after Ranjit's death in 1839. Gardner undertook the dirty work of various belligerents, parading severed heads on poles and, most notoriously, cutting off the ears, nose and fingers of a Brahmin magnate. Keay's handling of this difficult period of history is brilliantly lucid.

Unsurprisingly, Gardner's reputation has been controversial. During his retirement in Kashmir in the more peaceful 1860s he mesmerised visitors with tales of his travels, using a collection of native hats as props to illustrate different characters. He seemed to them a hoary monument from the heroic age of travel. He might even have inspired Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King.

Posted by at February 18, 2017 7:35 AM